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Californian Supreme Court defines separation

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The Californian Supreme Court has stated that legal separation only occurs between a couple when one party moves out of the family home.

The Court, based in San Francisco, made the statement in its ruling on a financial dispute between a former couple who had lived in Castro Valley across the Bay. Their marriage began to fray after six years. Eventually, in 2006, the wife, Sheryl Davis, told her husband that the marriage was over, took him off her credit card, insisted that he pay certain household expenses, and spent part of the week working at a new job in Los Angeles, 356 miles to the south. She filed for divorce in December 2008 but did not officially leave the couple’s home until 2011.

In the family courts, the couple gave different dates for their separation. Mrs Davis insisted that it had taken place in 2006 when they began to live separate lives, while her husband Xavier dated the separation to 2011 and her departure from the former matrimonial home.

Under Californian ‘community property’ laws, spouses must share jointly acquired property as well as any income earned prior to their official separation. If Mr and Mrs Davis had indeed not officially separated until 2011 Mr Davis would be entitled to a share of the higher salary his wife had earned over the preceding five years.

The case went to the local ‘superior’ (trial) court and then to the First District Court of Appeal, with the judges in both instances ruling in favour of Mrs Davis. But those decisions have now been reversed by the state’s Supreme Court.

Its ruling declared, in relation to the division of a couple’s assets:

“…Living in separate residences is an indispensable threshold requirement for a finding that spouses are living ‘separate and apart’.”

Referring to the establishment of separate residences, Chief Justice Taini Cantil-Sakauye added:

“[This] bright-line rule … promotes fairness by providing a measure of predictability to the parties and their attorney, as well as clear guidance to judges. It reduces the potential for manipulation of a more elastic standard by the higher earner in situations of significant income disparity.”

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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